Learning a language

There’s a lot of big talk about how technology can change education. As a very fortunate student who genuinely enjoyed school and had the resources to realize that, I can’t relate to a lot of it. Gimmicks that make school feel more like a game or a movie didn’t appeal to me. I liked books just fine the way they were.

One of my few miserable subjects in secondary school was the foreign language requirement. Despite all my frustration, I didn’t exactly quit — I studied it for five full years, eventually passing the IB SL French exam, but shirking the option to take the AP exam. At the time, I was pretty unhappy about having trudged through all of this. I was also bitter that my public school couldn’t teach it to me when I was five years old and could absorb languages much more easily.

The first step was to automate some of my problems away. One of the first computer programs I wrote outside of class was a flash card app to drill myself on vocabulary words. This was well before the advent of slick mobile apps, so I never felt deprived when tapping through my command-line Java program. The next step was to find source material that I actually cared about. TV shows and comic books were hard to find and slow to download, so I settled for Wikipedia articles on familiar topics.

The last piece I never found in high school was confidence. I spent many hours learning how to read French, and that paid off at exam time, but I never learned how to feel comfortable listening to someone speak or having someone listen to me speak. Duolingo has finally started to change that. While I’m still no sparkling conversationalist en français (or for that matter, in English; let’s be honest), playing with this app in the comfort of my own home has gotten me to enjoy these crucial practice drills in a way I’ve never enjoyed them. For the first time, I actually feel happy and excited to be studying another language. That’s a pretty powerful feeling.

DevelopHer Hackday

This past weekend, I attended DevelopHer Hackday at LinkedIn. It was my first ever hackathon and one of my first truly technical industry events. I’ve been to a few meetups and a conference (specifically, she++ at Stanford) that were especially for women in technology, but a lot of those events are about talks and social time rather than coding. Armed with my computer, I felt a lot more at ease than I usually do in a room full of strangers.

I showed up without collaborators or a project idea, and I’m definitely glad that I did. After arriving at LinkedIn pretty early on Saturday morning, I happened to meet several young women from Hackbright Academy and then had the privilege of working with them for a full day. We decided right away to work in Python and then spent some time brainstorming projects that we would find relatable before another lone programmer like myself wandered over to join our table. Wendy brought strong skills, lots of enthusiasm, and a project idea that eventually evolved into DressUpBox.

I’m not going to give a play-by-play of the event, but I did tweet a lot of it. One unexpected perk was being close enough to Shoreline that we were treated to a fireworks show around 9:30 pm. There was an instructor who led yoga classes and breathing exercises. There were ridiculous oversized beanbags that are approximately the size of a full or queen mattress. And most importantly, there were lots of friendly, supportive LinkedIn employees who volunteered their weekends to make sure the event went smoothly.

Before this weekend, I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy a hackathon. It’s not that I’m never competitive; I played quiz bowl very enthusiastically for most of high school. (Ask me about it sometime, especially if you ever played at NAQT or ACF.) And yes, I had my share of late nights in front of a laptop as a Computer Science major. But for whatever reason, I had trouble seeing myself as someone who would enjoy such an event.

I’m happy to confirm that those doubts were completely wrong. Do you have trouble focusing on personal projects at home? Being surrounded by people helps a lot. Maybe you don’t feel very competitive? Hackathons can be an exhilarating way to help others learn a new language. It was exhausting, but it’s so worth it that I’m already looking forward to my next hacking event.